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Home    |   Print Edition   |   An Indivisible and Living Whole: Do We Value Nature Enough to Grant It Personhood?

An Indivisible and Living Whole: Do We Value Nature Enough to Grant It Personhood?

Mar 29, 2020

Allison Katherine Athens

Volume 45 (2018) - Issue 2

In 1972, in his dissent to the majority’s decision in Sierra Club v. Morton, Justice Blackmun posed a question: “Must our law be so rigid and our procedural concepts so inflexible that we render ourselves helpless when the existing methods and the traditional concepts do not quite fit and do not prove to be entirely adequate for new issues?” Forty years later, Aotearoa New Zealand’s parliament answered in the negative. Responding to the New Zealand Crown government’s historic failure to meet their treaty responsibilities with Māori iwi (tribes) and current fears of environmental degradation, the New Zealand Crown government found flexibility in their legal system to accommodate Māori views of nature as a living entity that cannot be owned and used as property. By transforming a former national park and an economically important river from property to legal persons under the guardianship of the interested Māori tribe, the New Zealand Crown government eschewed rigidity in order to meet their treaty obligations while also safeguarding the best interest of each natural feature as an ecological system.

In the following Note, I borrow from feminist theory and environmental philosophy to examine how the categories of nature and personhood function within a cultural context to support the status quo of nature as property. I conduct a detailed examination of the case of Lavinia Goodell, a woman denied admittance to the bar in 1875, in order to show how cultural attitudes determine categorical boundaries, indicating that nature can gain legal personhood based on changing cultural norms. After considering different models of valuing and protecting nature in the United States and around the world, I argue that nature, like Lavinia Goodell, has intrinsic value and thus should be entitled to legal personhood. I end with the proposition that granting the Columbia River Watershed legal personhood so that it may participate in the renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty alongside interested and affected Columbia River Tribes would prove our legal system flexible enough to address the challenges of modern ecosystem protection.